There are few people in the world who are truly extraordinary. Among the ranks obviously are inventors, philosophizers, peacemakers, and reconcilers. One of the most inspiring is Nelson Mandela. Ever since I changed my homepage to BBC and joined the arena of international affairs, I’ve been completely obsessed with Nelson Mandela. We admire people because they possess some skill unknown to the common man—this is why they are extraordinary. Besides his strong leadership qualities, his passion, and his strength, Nelson Mandela is the epitome of forgiveness and reconciliation, two of the most difficult human characteristics to master. With my stubbornness, I easily recognize my own faults in this area. But after 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela shed his anger against his enemies and took them into his ranks, weaving together a broken, bloody people under the flag of the rainbow nation. There is no greater hero in my mind than Nelson Mandela, and it was a unique experience to visit his prison of 18 years on Robben Island.
After a perfect morning of lattes and good books at Vovo Telo (our favorite waterfront bakery), the ferry skimmed us across the ocean from the waterfront to Robben Island. The only casualty was Luke’s breakfast as he quickly realized that he was prone to seasickness. We disembarked the ferry and boarded a guided bus tour of the island. From here, we were able to see the area where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress and one of the real brains of the opposition, served his term of solitary confinement on the island. He was released and re-imprisoned numerous times before his death. We continued around the island and were able to see a graveyard of the lepers who were previously confined to the island due to fear of the spread of the disease. All of the leper buildings were destroyed, save one church. We also saw the town that still thrives on the island, a small group of only 200, mainly consisting of workers and previous prisoners.
Continuing further we were given a gorgeous view of Cape Town. Right on the water, Table Mountain was a prominent landmark across the ocean. To our delight we even saw a few penguins along the way. Our last stop was the limestone quarry where prisoners served terms of hard labor for the camp. Due to the reflective nature of the limestone, many prisoners suffered severe eye and skin damage from their work in the quarry, working without protective gear, or even shovels. This is why Nelson Mandela has undergone numerous eye surgeries and cannot tolerate any flash photography. These prisoners did succeed in crafting a cave in the quarry, in which “academic lessons” were held. The opposition would meet in the cave, two at a time, to discuss plans or to teach. This cave was just out of eyesight of the guards, and lessons or meetings occurred for years. This is what helped to keep the opposition alive, as the prisoners convened and then snuck out information and ideas.
Our tour concluded at the prison, where a former Robben Island prisoner met us who showed us around. This specific prisoner was sentenced to 8 years because of his work with the opposition in the Eastern Cape. In the prison, the elders were secluded from the younger people so as to stop conspiracy and rebellion. One day, this prisoner snuck through the kitchen, where he grabbed a cart and an apron, and headed into the block where Nelson Mandela and other elders were kept. In there, he asked numerous questions, importantly, if they knew that violence would erupt despite a peaceful protest, why be peaceful? Mandela responded that a peaceful solution is always necessary for international support.
It was humbling to stand in front of Mandela’s cell. To imagine the unjust imprisonment of such an extraordinary man for 18 years in that single cell is a chilling thought. While held by these bars, Mandela wrote his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”. A comrade smuggled it out as he was released from the prison, putting each page of the book behind a different photo in the photo albums he was allowed to bring home with him. While in the prison I also read the testimonial of another prisoner, who talked about the importance of integrating rugby for reconciliation, much like my favorite movie INVICTUS!
Interestingly, Robben Island housed many oppositionists from South Africa itself, but also held many political prisoners against the apartheid regime from other countries, notably Namibia. Visiting this block was interesting because I had always considered Robben Island the epitome of apartheid oppression, but it evidentially did not constrain itself to merely that.
The experience on Robben Island is not something I will ever forget. In light of Nelson Mandela’s current life threatening lung infection, I feel as though I visited the island just in time. I was moved by his compassion once again after seeing firsthand just a piece of what he had to overcome. He is an inspiration to me, and a huge pillar of this country. I look forward to seeing the future of South Africa unfold with the legacy that he has left behind.